The Importance of Sheep

I was watching a TV programme about the Vikings the other day and it spent a lot of time talking about how impressive the Viking ships were, the amazing woodworking skills and the amount of work that went in to building the boat. All fascinating stuff. There are dozens of pages on the internet and videos on YouTube that will tell all about these incredible craftsmen and the near miracles they achieved only using a few basic handtools.

The longships allowed the Vikings to travel great distances, they were fast and light, able to travel in shallow water, and to reverse direction quickly . They were so important that the Vikings literally wouldn’t exist without them – going a-viking meant setting out on longship to visit other lands, whether for raiding or for trading.

Viking Longboat

If you read a few of these articles you’ll soon find out that while the longboats could be rowed, it was having sails that made the difference between sailing along the coast and being able to travel across the high seas to distant lands. Erik the Red sailed all the way to Canada. However, none of the websites or TV shows tell us anything about the sails other than that they existed.

The sails for Viking longboats were just as remarkable as the boats. Viking sails were made from wool, and to produce wool you need sheep. Sheep in viking times were smaller than they are today and produced less wool, it has been estimated that making the sails for a single Viking warship would have taken the wool of 1000 sheep.  Researchers at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, calculated that by the middle of the 11th century, the Viking fleet—fishing boats, coastal traders, cargo ships, and longships—used roughly one million square meters of sail, which means it would take two million sheep a year to produce enough wool.


It takes a lot of work to turn wool into sails. Viking age sheep shed their wool twice a year so rather than shearing tufts of loose wool would be plucked by hand. Four or five people would surround the sheep and take off a handful at a time. This took around 10 minutes for each sheep. The wool would be sorted as it was plucked, twisted into hanks and cured with fish oil so it could be stored for later use. The rest of the process would wait until autumn and winter when there was less work to do outdoors. Viking sheep had a two layer coat, so come autumn the first step was to seperate the long outer fleece from the shorter softer undercoat. The short fibres were sprinkled with more fish oil which would make them even softer.

The longer fibres were spun tightly in a clockwise direction. These would become the warp threads which would be set up on the warp weighted loom. They had to be strong to withstand the force of the wind no matter what the weather conditions were. The shorter fibres were spun loosely in an anti-clockwise direction – being looser they would be fluffy and mesh together making the surface windproof. These would be the weft threads. It would take two skilled woodworkers about two weeks to build a viking ship. It would take two skilled spinners a year just to make the yarn needed to weave a sail.

Woman spinning. Detail from an Ancient Greek attic white-ground oinochoe, ca. 490 BC, from Locri, Italy. British Museum, London.

Once the yarn was made the weaving could start. The sails were usually woven as twill (the fabric would appear to have diagonal lines), a skilled weaver would take around 20 hours to weave a metre of sail fabric. Viking sails were usually square and could easily be 100 square metres or more. The looms could only make narrow strips of cloth, the width was limited by the need to reach all the way through to pass the weft threads from side to side. With a long shuttle and a person working at either size the maximum width would be 5m wide although most were narrower, so a 100m square sail would take at least 2 strips of 10 metres – which is another 800 man hours of work.

Warp weighted loom

After the weaving the strips would be fulled, stretched and sewn together. Fulling combined washing the fabric with pounding it so the fibres meshed together. I don’t know for sure how the vikings fulled their cloth, but the Romans did it by having slaves trample on the cloth while ankle deep in urine. Other methods include bashing it with stones or clubs. After fulling the cloth would be washed before the next process.

The final step to making a Viking sail was smorring, the fabric was brushed with a mixture of water, horse fat, fish oil, and ochre when this had dried hot tallow or fir tar was rubbed into the sail. This process left the sail smooth, and completely wind and water proof.

It seems surprising to me that all of this work and the sheer amount of engineering involved in making sails doesn’t even warrant a mention in most discussions of Viking longboats – I can only assume this is because spinning and weaving were usually done by the women and most of the people writing about and researching Viking history are men. I learned all of this by reading The Golden Thread by Kassia St Clair – a fabulous book about the history and future of fabric. It really changed my perception of Viking Longboats and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a different perspective on history.

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